0234 | Bitter Lake

bitter-lakeThough the title makes it sound like a crap horror film, Bitter Lake is actually a new feature-length documentary by Adam Curtis, the celebrated English journalist and filmmaker still probably best known for his work examining advertising and public relations, The Century Of The Self. In this new film Curtis explores Afghanistan’s recent shared political history with western powers, the Middle East (primarily Saudi Arabia) and Russia, concluding that subsequent leaders of invading countries have been oversimplifying their recent wars and ‘interventions’ by constantly pushing the line that a battle between ‘good’ and ‘evil’ is taking place, and that recent wars have seen the involvement of more parties than the low figure regularly accepted by the media. It makes for an interesting counterpoint to the recent American Sniper, a film in which the lead character wholly accepts his government’s simple, public explanation of foreign affairs.

Bitter Lake was commissioned by the BBC, who have enjoyed a long and fruitful relationship with Curtis, as an exclusive for their iPlayer streaming service. As I write it’s available to view on the iPlayer for those in the UK for a further couple of weeks, though it’s also popped up on YouTube as well. In a way the BBC’s decision to keep it off ‘normal’ channels benefits Curtis, who did not have to edit his film with a particular time slot in mind, and as a result the finished work has been allowed to sprawl to around 135 minutes, far longer than your average doc. The BBC also gave Curtis access to all of its archive footage from Afghanistan, including everything it had previously deemed un-broadcastable – for whatever reason – on terrestrial TV.

The result of the filmmaker’s digging and subsequent editing is fascinating, and – despite its heavy criticism of certain administrations – actually fairly balanced; the policies of the American right come in for a hammering, but so do those of turn-of-the-century UK, nominally at least a left-wing government under Tony Blair’s leadership. Curtis begins his film much earlier, however, in the early 1950s, when the US government helped build the giant Kajaki Dam on the Helmand river, sending over experienced employees of the Morrison-Knudsen company to carry out the work. In an ironic twist of fate the soil of the newly-irrigated lands around the Kajaki Dam proved to be perfect for growing opium poppies, transformed into heroin and subsequently exported to the west by the Mujahedeen and the Taliban for well over 20 years, undoubtedly funding the purchase of weaponry. The flow of cash into the country during the 1980s and the subsequent financial ability of rebels to purchase UK-manufactured arms from Saudi Arabia suited the west at the time, while the Mujahedeen battled Soviet forces, but their prevalence in the region today has been something of a hindrance to the later desires of western governments, to say the least. The US, of course, also gave arms to the Mujahedeen during the country’s Soviet War, including 2,000 FIM-92 Stinger surface-to-air missiles. Those are the same weapons that have apparently been used against the US (and allied) forces during the long post-9/11 ‘intervention’ in Afghanistan, though the authorities have always denied this and official reports apparently classify them as ‘unguided RPGs’.

‘Bitter Lake’ is actually a reference to the Great Bitter Lake, part of the Suez Canal and the site of the Quincy Agreement, which was signed by US President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Saudi Arabia’s King Abdulaziz shortly after the former attended the Yalta Conference with Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin. Thus Curtis’s film also examines the fragile, oil-centric relationship between Saudi Arabia and the US (primarily), and traces the roots of the Mujahedeen (and, later, the Taliban, al-Qaeda and IS) to the extreme Wahhabism emanating from within Saudi Arabia and deliberately ushered by the nervous House of Saud towards Afghanistan. The film also details Afghanistan’s role as a major destination on the hippie trail of the early 1970s, and in one illuminating sequence Curtis makes the link between western travellers bringing Marxist literature into the country in the 1970s and the Marxist revolution that took place in the late 1970s, as well as the subsequent, decade-long Soviet War. It would appear that Curtis is suggesting that the travellers were just another party of invaders who failed to properly understand the country they visited, albeit a more peaceful one than those that came later.

Curtis shows how the Taliban grew in power, while simultaneously explaining the relevance of the socio-economic peaks and troughs experienced in the US, the UK and the Soviet Union / Russia during the past 35 years, and the shaping of the modern global financial system. The film is semi-linear, and although not all of it focuses on conflict, it arrives at the present after plenty of footage showing the chaos of firefights, ambushes and assassination attempts.

This often-startling archive film of a country that has effectively been in a war-torn state for more than 30 years comes from a mixture of sources: journalists and news broadcasts, the Russian army, Afghan clans, the Taliban, the Mujahedeen, ordinary citizens, successive ruling powers, western forces and even TV drama shows. Bizarrely, Bitter Lake even includes a glimpse into the Afghan version of British political satire The Thick Of It, though the impact of the regular juxtaposition of harrowing or serious footage with comic clips like this (Carry On…Up The Khyber features heavily) diminishes each time Curtis repeats the trick. The editing does ensure that one of the film’s main messages – successive world powers and visiting individuals have failed to understand Afghanistan’s background and culture – is clearly made; there are political and military gaffes, as you’d expect, but I cringed most when an English teacher in a present-day Kabul school unfortunately chooses to describe the impact of Marcel Duchamp’s artwork ‘Fountain’ as ‘a revolution’ to a sea of confused faces for whom the word has very different connotations.

The sheer range of images is commendable, and Curtis blends the footage expertly to create a kind of unsettling, dreamy feel (enhanced by the magnificent soundtrack, which makes fine use of the likes of Burial, Nine Inch Nails, David Bowie and a range of Afghan folk music). Curtis weaves in several recurring motifs – birds, smoke and dancing – and throughout the repetition reinforces the idea of history repeating, and a collective failure to learn lessons from the past, while also illustrating the differences between certain periods in Afghan history in interesting ways; footage from the 1970s shows markedly different reactions to visiting foreign camera crews by schoolgirls, for example, than similar stock from the past 15 years.

The evangelism exhibited by fans of Curtis has grown exponentially in recent years, and for the first time I found myself feeling the same way after watching this new film, urgently suggesting on Facebook that anyone with an interest in global politics or quality documentary work should check out Bitter Lake immediately. It’s a powerful film and, notably, one that shows the value of restraint, incorporating long wordless passages which allow music and images to carry any necessary messages; the information is easy to digest but this multi-layered film lets it out gradually and intelligently, relying on visual impact as much as the director’s clear, schoolmasterly narration. Essential viewing.

The Basics:
Directed by: Adam Curtis
Written by: Adam Curtis
Running Time: 148 minutes
Year: 2015
Rating: 9.1

Comments 4

    • Stu February 9, 2015

      It really is compelling stuff. An excellent documentary, if you can get hold of it. I am pretty sure the BBC will sell it on DVD eventually but I doubt it’s the kind of thing they’ll stick on BBC America!

  1. Three Rows Back February 10, 2015

    Fantastic piece Stu; I’ve been a big fan of Adam Curtis since being wowed by The Power of Nightmares. This isn’t quite up there with that masterpiece, but there is no-one making documentaries like him and his narratives are never less than fascinating. Really good stuff.

    • Stu February 11, 2015

      I’ve not seen that, but I will definitely check it out as I remember the praise it got at the time. I’m a bit of a late convert, as All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace was the first thing of his that I watched, so there’s quite a big filmography to catch up on. But completely agree – his work is fascinating. Thanks Mark.

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